Education and High Standards for All

School is finally back in session here in Shelby County, Kentucky, and our teachers are working arduously to get to know their students. Teachers understand that the first days are some of the most important because that is when we get to start making lasting connections with our students. I make time to get to know my students, but I also give them the opportunity to get to know me—not just teacher me, but Mrs. Godoy the person, who was once new to this country, going through the same transitions many of my students are.

As I shared some of my background with students during an informal Q&A, I noticed a few nodding in agreement with the difficulty of being a newcomer. I later learned that two of my students in that particular class have only been in the country for a few months. Despite how “new” my students might be, my goal is to hold them to the same high standards that I hold all of my students to because that is the only way to ensure their success. It is vital to student success that as our student populations change, so do our practices, but our standards and expectations never should.

And it is no secret that student populations all over our country are changing. For example, in Shelby County, the English Learner population has grown to 21%. To ensure we are providing those students with the support they need while still holding them to high expectations, our district has adjusted our programs. As part of a district-wide initiative to meet the needs of EL and ESL students, they created the Inspire Newcomer Academy for English Language Learners and each of our high schools has at least two full-time ESL teachers, as well as several aides and tutors. All our schools, early education centers through high school, have a staff of highly qualified personnel dedicated to helping our immigrant and migrant students succeed.

In my own classroom, I hold all my students to the same standard and use effective, intentional scaffolding and a gradual release of responsibility to help my ELL students believe in themselves. Students understand that the standard itself is lofty but that broken up into its parts, it is possible to achieve mastery. As students gain confidence in their skills, I gradually remove some of the scaffolds, the same way you would remove training wheels after enough practice, and soon students start to believe in themselves. Regardless of a student’s starting point, my expectation of what they can achieve remains the same.

As a result, our students are thriving and growing. Those that have graduated return, sometimes as part-time tutors to help other students facing some of the similar language barriers that they did. Others return simply to let teachers know that the skills they learned in class had real-life applications. Some have even been so inspired, they have become members of our staff, eager to provide the same quality instruction they received to a new group of students. Our students return because, as our principal often says, “We take care of our own;” not because they belong to a particular demographic, but because once they enter our schools, we treat them like our own children.

I am constantly humbled by and thankful for the opportunity I was once afforded to earn a free education that evolved into a love of teaching. A high-quality public education must be provided for all of our students because all students deserve an education that opens doors for them. We must continue to focus on improving the quality of instruction for all students regardless of the subgroup they belong to because doing so benefits all of us.

Vilma Godoy is a coffee-loving high school English teacher in Shelbyville, KY. Born in Guatemala, raised in California, and transplanted to Kentucky, Vilma has a wide range of experiences that inform her teaching style and philosophy. She is passionate about providing rigorous opportunities for students to learn and grow, not only as English students, but as well-informed members of society. Her desire is that all students leave her classroom better prepared to face the world.